Family members mourn for Sgt. Neil Thomas Gunn Sr., who committed suicide… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
Neil Thomas Gunn Sr. wheeled his pickup truck to the curb in a quiet hillside neighborhood in Burbank, about a mile from the police department where he'd worked for 22 years.
He got out toting a 12-gauge shotgun, walked to a grassy area and turned the weapon on himself.
Knowing that officers from his department would be dispatched to the scene, Gunn had left two notes in the truck.
One asked that the vehicle not be impounded but instead released to his family.
The other said: "This is absolutely work related."
Gunn's suicide in October was the most visible sign of the troubles that over the last year have beset the once sleepy Burbank Police Department. Officers have accused colleagues of taking part in bloody beatings, stealing an internal affairs file and acting out of deeply entrenched racial bias.
The fact that most of the allegations have come from within the 166-officer force has been a severe blow to the small department. The Burbank force has been so bitterly divided by the accusations that newly appointed interim Chief Scott LaChasse, who this year replaced Chief Tim Stehr, asked psychologists to help him sort through the morass and come up with a corrective plan.
The City Council has set aside more than $1 million to pay for policing experts to assess the department. Officers said they are under orders not to discuss the turmoil because of internal affairs investigations and a federal grand jury probe. Many of the more than a dozen officers interviewed for this article requested anonymity to avoid disciplinary action.
Gunn was one of several Burbank officers who are subjects of an FBI investigation into allegations of excessive force, according to law enforcement sources familiar with the probe.
Federal prosecutors are scrutinizing several cases involving use of force against suspects and have subpoenaed the department's files relating to two cases. In both, booking photos show bruised or bloody suspects, but the arrest reports provide explanations for the injuries. Investigators are trying to determine whether improper force was used and whether the arrest reports were falsified, according to the sources.
Gunn was a sergeant in charge of the department's Special Enforcement Detail, an elite unit responsible for making high-risk arrests. Among the others targeted in the federal investigation are Jose Duran, a sergeant in vice/narcotics who worked closely with the enforcement detail; Omar Rodriguez, who worked in the detail years ago but is now in charge of recruiting; Det. Chris Canales, a former LAPD officer; and Sgt. Edgar Penaranda. The officers, either individually or through their attorneys, have denied any wrongdoing.
One of the incidents under federal investigation is the Aug. 23, 2007, arrest of alleged drug dealer Rene Escarsega. According to police, Escarsega was standing in the kitchen of his Northridge condo holding several bags of marijuana and counting money when officers raided the residence. Next to him, police said, was Arturo "Frog" Bautista, who was holding a TEC-9 semiautomatic pistol, which he quickly placed on the counter in front of him.
Officers said both men complied when commanded to "get down."
When Escarsega was taken to police headquarters for booking, he had bruises on his face. A watch commander asked if he wanted to file a complaint. After a discussion with one of the arresting officers -- Canales -- he decided not to. Police said he had banged his face on the edge of a kitchen counter when he dropped to the floor as ordered.
But Bautista, in an interview with The Times, said that one of the officers hit Escarsega for no reason. Bautista said he did not see the blow but heard Escarsega yell, "Why . . . did you hit me?" He said he was smoking marijuana when the police rushed in.
Attempts to reach Escarsega were unsuccessful.
Another case under review involves the treatment of alleged gang members arrested after a robbery of Porto's Bakery, a popular eatery on Magnolia Boulevard. On Dec. 28, 2007, six masked gunmen burst into the restaurant just after closing time, placed employees in restraints and forced the manager to open the safe. They escaped with nearly $15,000 in cash.
Canales and Penaranda were called in to help investigate the case. Over the next couple of months, Gunn and Duran helped conduct searches of locations linked to the robbery suspects, most of them Mara Salvatrucha gangsters. Rodriguez was present when at least one of the suspects was being booked.
At the time, there were anonymous complaints of excessive force, but an internal probe found no substantiation for them. The case was reopened last spring when a detective told authorities that he had watched Rodriguez grab a suspect by the throat and put a gun to his head while the suspect was sitting in a hallway in the police station waiting to be interviewed.